Sir Gawain, the hero in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, has a reputation of being chivalrous, courteous, brave, and honorable in his dealings with others. This reputation serves as Gawain’s identity for those around him, but more importantly, it serves as Gawain’s sustenance. With all of the many life-threatening challenges in his travels to find the Green Chapel, the most threatening thing to Gawain is solitude. In solitude, there is no one to receive his chivalry or honorable actions and there is no one to admire his bravery; Gawain’s reputation, the very thing that sustains him, is insignificant.
Sir Gawain’s knightly ways are immediately evident in Part I of the poem. His bravery and loyalty are demonstrated when he requests to take King Arthur’s place for the Green Knight’s challenge. This outward display of knightly values coupled with Gawain’s humility possibly explains Gawain most completely. He says to Arthur and the court, “I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest And the loss of my life would be least of any; That I have you for my uncle is my only praise; My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth;” (l. 354-357)
Although, in accepting the challenge and outwardly appearing knightly, his words speak more to how he truly feels about himself. Gawain must always strengthen his image and reputation, because without it he is as described above, weak and worthless-at least in his own eyes. There is a lot of this contrasting imagery of strength and weakness, with regard to Gawain, throughout the play. His armor, horse and shield are described as being splendors of gold, gems, and beauty, not function. It is almost as if they are just for show and not for protection.
His armor is outwardly described as being “new-furbished” and “bedecked all with gold”; it “glittered and glowed”. However, within the armor there was cloth and silk, “bordered with birds” and “love-knots”. His shield “shone all red/With the pentangle portrayed in purest gold. ” The pentangle, a symbol of truth, he bore on the outside of both his coat and shield “as to his word most true”. However, on the inside of the shield was the image of the Virgin Mary, which gave him strength to never lose heart.
This imagery is necessary to show the value Gawain holds for his outward appearance and how his weaknesses are hidden, the greatest of which is his dependence upon his reputation to sustain him. Lines 716-762 give us great insight to Gawain’s many challenges on his way to find the Green Chapel. Gawain is described as warring with “serpents”, “savage wolves”, and “wild men of the woods”. However, what is interesting is that the poet does not get into detail about these horrible battles. Instead, he describes Gawain as being forlorn, all alone; he is described as sighing and lamenting. All of these words are desperate in definition.
The poet does this because there is no need at this point to get into detail about these battles whose descriptions are only functional insofar as strengthening Gawain’s reputation. Since Gawain is alone, his reputation is worthless. This is the only time in the poem that we will see Gawain in such despair. Even on the day he believes he will lose his life, he is not in such a morose state but rather he is courageous in the presence of his lead. He responds to the man when it is suggested that Gawain go the opposite way of the Chapel and not face the Knight, “But though you never told the tale, if I turned back now,
Forsook this place for fear, and fled, as you say, I were a caitiff coward; I could not be excused. But I must to the Chapel to chance my luck And say to that same man such words as I please, Befall what may befall through Fortune’s will or whim. ” It could be argued that Gawain shows such courage here because he has the magic girdle to protect him and not because he must uphold his brave reputation. But, I would argue that if this was the case, why does Gawain flinch moments later when the Green Knight prepares to cut him with the axe? It just does not follow reason; the only explanation could be Gawain’s investment in his reputation.
This investment in his reputation is evident throughout the poem, but mostly in Gawain’s interactions with Lady Bertilak. Lady Bertilak’s function is to aid the Green Knight in testing the reputation of King Arthur’s court. So, throughout most of her interaction with Gawain, she attempts to persuade him into actions that are unbefitting a knight. Predominantly, she tests his chivalry. Aware of Gawain’s investment in his reputation, Lady Bertilak questions his identity repeatedly to aid in her attempts. Gawain’s reaction to her initial questioning is fear that he said something discourteous.
He then uses his excellence in language and successfully assures her of his identity yet gracefully defers her attempts without being unmannerly. Gawain is certainly comfortable and content in these exchanges with Lady Bertilak. He is described as being skilled in flattery and here he is able to accentuate upon that factor of his identity. Until Gawain’s last day at the castle, he has successfully upheld his reputation and that of King Arthur’s court. On this day that he was to leave the castle to meet his doom at the Green Chapel, Lady Bertilak offered him a magic girdle that was supposed to protect him from all physical harm.
Gawain, afraid for his life accepts the gift and deliberately hides the gift from Lord Bertilak, breaking his word given to the Lord earlier in his stay. Gawain’s weakness has begun to seep through his armor of perfect virtue. He has exhibited cowardess, dishonesty, and discourteousness toward his host. What is important to note is that Gawain does not seem to realize what he has done. If he had, he would surely have admitted the sin to the priest during his confession. It is also fair to say that if Gawain had realized that his weaknesses were evident and marring his reputation, he would have sooner died.
We see his surprise and disgust when the faults of his actions are finally brought to light. “So gripped with grim rage that his great heart shook. All the blood of his body burned in his face As he shrank back in shame from the man’s sharp speech. The first words that fell from the fair knight’s lips: ‘Accursed be a cowardly and covetous heart! ‘” (l. 2372-2374) Possibly, as a last attempt to salvage his reputation and possibly strengthen it, Gawain first blames Lady Bertilak of trapping him and then compares himself with great figures in history who have themselves been trapped by women: Adam, Solomon, Samson, David and more.
However, he doesn’t even seem to convince himself that Lady Bertilak is completely to blame, because he takes the Knight’s girdle and wears it as a symbol of his faults. He says, “But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take And be pleased to possess, not for the pure gold, Nor the bright belt itself, nor the beauteous pendants, Nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine, But a sign of excess it shall seem oftentimes When I ride in renown, and remember with shame The faults and the frailty of the flesh perverse. ” (l. 2429-2435) Gawain’s reaction supports the theory that he would rather have died then mar his reputation.
However when he goes back to the court with great shame and disgrace he is greeted with “gay laughter and gracious intent”. The court is not at all concerned with Gawain’s “failure”, instead they are ecstatic for his success in defeating death and upholding the reputation of the court. It is also interesting to note that Bertilak, in contrast to Gawain, but in agreement with the court, does not see Gawain as a failure. He says, “Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there, But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either, But that you loved your own life; the less, than, to blame. ” (l. 365-2369)
Gawain, considered by many to be his own worse critic, is successful in his attempt to divert death, but possibly to his own dissatisfaction. In his attempt to evade death, Gawain marred his reputation would possibly have rather perished. Gawain, however, does deal with his fear of a blemished reputation in wearing the girdle until he may “breathe [his] last”. This is his first step of becoming more comfortable with the idea of his imperfection and dealing with his biggest threat, solitude. For, if he can handle not having a perfect reputation, possibly he can handle not having one at all.